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The dimensional dynamism of ‘Dead Astronauts’

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There will always be a place for straightforward narrative fiction. There will always be stories that need to be told, tales that move from Point A to Point B and so on, following a linear path from beginning to end. Tales filled with heartbreak and humor, driven by plot and character.

But sometimes? Sometimes, you just want to get weird. And for those times, well … Jeff VanderMeer can help you out.

VanderMeer – one of our leading purveyors of the literary subgenre dubbed “weird fiction” – has a strange and exquisitely opaque new novel. “Dead Astronauts” (MCD, $27) is a prequel of sorts to his equally bizarre 2017 novel “Borne,” its title a reference to a line in that previous book. It brings us back to the ravaged future VanderMeer created for “Borne,” only slightly earlier in the timeline of that technocorporate dystopia.

It is a challenging experiment of a novel, marked by the vivid weirdness and repetitive complexity that features prominently in VanderMeer’s work. There’s a narrative fluidity to it all, marked by an odd combination of optimism about and suspicion toward technology and the way it impacts the world around us in ways both miniscule and massive.

Synopsizing the plot of a book like “Dead Astronauts” is a fool’s errand. VanderMeer’s books tend to be idea-packed puzzle boxes driven by character and imagery; this one is no different. Our central figures are a dimension-spanning trio – one human and two nonhuman humanoids. The human is Grayson, an actual astronaut whose years-long mission into space came to a tragic conclusion upon a return to a crumbled husk of a homeworld. Then there’s Chen, a clairvoyant creature whose visions of the future come at the cost of a constant fight against a breakup into his component parts. Finally, there’s Moss, whose name comes from the fact that she is literally made of moss; her science experiment origins have left her with the ability to open doors between dimensions.

Together, these three roam from universe to universe, constantly seeking a parallel world where the mighty City has not yet fallen prey to the massive and predatory Company, a monolithic entity devoted to profit through progress (though their definition of “progress” seems inconsistent and unsettlingly opaque). In their journeys, they encounter strange creatures born of the Company’s horrible experiments – namely, a telepathic blue fox and a malevolent duck. Both of these beasts signify the rot of the world under the auspices of the Company.

But that’s not all. We’re also invited to look at this world through other eyes. A monstrous Leviathan grown large over the course of centuries in the dumping ponds of failed experiments. A deranged madman who sacrificed his sanity in service to the Company’s scientific efforts and flees the memory of his most dangerous creation. A homeless woman whose discovery of an unstuck-in-time journal from the pen of a Company scientist leaves her wondering at demons both real and imagined.

VanderMeer is a master of world-building – and not just in the manner you might expect. Yes, he has an incredible gift for the creation of elaborate universes, rich in detail. The structures of his settings are meticulous and fascinating, filled with visceral details that are complex and compelling. But he is also tremendously gifted at creating labyrinthine inner worlds, dropping us into varied psyches with individualized and vivid views of their circumstances. That ability to capture both the grand scale of a vast universe and the nuanced minutiae of an individual personality with equal aplomb is rare … and VanderMeer unleashes it here.

He’s unafraid to flout convention as well, shifting from perspective to perspective with little warning. Those varying perspectives also often come with stylistic shifts; VanderMeer moves from voice to voice with ease. The end result is a book that makes demands of a reader’s attention, but greatly rewards those who meet those demands.

It should be noted that while “Dead Astronauts” is a prequel, it stands strong on its own. You can read this book with no prerequisite; reading “Borne” would certainly contribute to your engagement, but it isn’t necessary.

“Dead Astronauts” is another literary challenge issued by Jeff VanderMeer, an experimental work aimed at exploring the possibilities inherent to pushing genre tropes to their limits and beyond. It isn’t an easy read, but it is 100% worth the effort. Bold, bizarre and bleakly beautiful, you’ve never experienced anything quite like it.

Last modified on Saturday, 25 January 2020 10:26

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